New Poll Finds that Canadians Don’t Know About the Women Who Shaped their History

55 per cent of those surveyed could not name the accomplishments of Canadian women

Nellie McClung, a Canadian suffragette, politician, author, and social activist. (flickr/BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives, cropped)

As part of women’s history month, Historica Canada published an article which states that approximately 55 per cent of Canadians are uninformed about the accomplishments of Canadian women.

Of the roughly 1,000 Canadians aged 18 or over who were surveyed, many were unable to pass a test about the role of women in Canadian politics, arts, culture, and military history. A majority of both men and women failed the 12-question true-or-false quiz, and only three per cent received an “A” grade.

Eryk Martin, an instructor in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s department of history, is disappointed but unsurprised by these results.

“Before the 1960s, there just really wasn’t a lot of emphasis on women as important historical actors,” explains Martin. “For a long time … historians had mostly been interested in telling the stories of a small number of elite white men, particularly in the context of Canada.”

The project manager of Historica Canada, Davida Aronovitch, says that the report can and should be used to encourage a greater emphasis on the accomplishments of women in Canadian society.

“Knowledge [in the poll] was lower than expected, but we also found there was considerable interest in the subject matter,” she says. “And that, I think, is a really important takeaway.”

Earlier this year, Historica Canada released a similar report for International Women’s Day. It found that no more than three in 10 Canadians say that the country “is doing ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ in informing Canadian youth about women’s history.” This report also found that only a minority of Canadians were able to name the specific accomplishments of Canadian women such as Emily Carr, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Nellie McClung.

Martin believes that this lack of knowledge stems from the same historical misogyny which the women mentioned in the report struggled against throughout their lives.

“Canada is still profoundly sexist. It’s still profoundly misogynistic,” he says. “I think that definitely has a role to play in the fact that people might not be paying attention to women historically because they don’t like listening to them now.”

In her position with Historica Canada, Aronovitch has worked on programming for the long-running Heritage Minute series, which consists of short, educational films about important moments in Canadian history. She says that, while it can be difficult to fit everything worth remembering from history into a course, Historica Canada is doing what it can to educate Canadians on the historic accomplishments of women.

“We’re eager to see curriculum expanded to incorporate more diverse narratives, more women’s narratives and women’s history,” she says. “Gradually, we do see changes taking place there.”